The Great Education Debate: To Pod Or Not To Pod

Affluent Parents Are Forming ‘Pandemic Pods’––Here Are The Issues With That

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Scary Mommy and Jonathan Kirn/Getty

In my household, we’ve been debating what we want to do with our kids this school year — keep them home as we wait out the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, or take a chance and send them to school. We want to make memories (this is their first introduction to elementary school; they’ll be entering as kindergarteners), but we’re not sure the memories are worth the risk.

Our district has made it clear that the first option on their three-pronged list of possibilities is that they expect to have kids attend school five days a week, beginning September 3rd when our schools reopen. We’ve taken our kids out of their after-school program run by the YMCA as a precaution and, we hope, a means to limit their exposure. Is that enough? Should we also keep them home for the entire school year?

The pressure to commit to one or some hybrid of distance learning and in-classroom instruction is real. But so are “pandemic pods,” a kind of teaching which allows for kids to join other kids within their community in a homeschooling environment taught by a private teacher — an option that typically white parents subscribe to.

Or perhaps even that parent, that teacher, looks like me — a Black, educated mom who wants to teach her children about what it means to be studious, curious, and to respect others. How is this intent any different than what we’ve been doing since March — trying to keep our kids engaged, at home, and healthy, and keep them learning their ABCs and phonics? Or any different than what most parents want for their kids — to nurture and educate our children in a safe environment and right now, that environment is in this new kind of homeschooling environment?

For me personally, these pods don’t feel any different than what we’ve been doing for the last three months, except there is a hired professional (like the teachers who teach in public schools) to teach in-home. As parents, we are charged with creating opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom which includes introducing them to other children who are different from them in race, gender, and so on.

The idea, a phenomenon catching a little heat, shines a light on what is already happening in schools: socio-economic segregation and academic segregation. The special needs population isn’t even considered in much of the discourse I’ve seen. Clara Totenberg Green, a social and emotional learning specialist in Atlanta Public Schools, offers this insight in her New York Times Opinion piece on the debate, “At face value, learning pods seem a necessary solution to the current crisis. But in practice, they will exacerbate inequities, racial segregation, and the opportunity gap within schools.”

We gravitate towards what we know, right? If we have the opportunity to teach our kids and hire someone to teach them, would we do it? The ability to financially provide in this way is often a more accessible option for white parents. For lower-income families, and particularly people of color, it is not always as easy as “just” hiring a teacher.

Empty classroom in elementary school
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We are at a crossroads in the educational debate: how do we educate kids in low-income communities, who are often Black and Brown, so they do not fall even further behind? How do we encourage racial diversity within pods when we may already live in a segregated area? The answers are not easy ones. The pandemic pods provide a clear way to support the academic endeavors for some kids, but leaves out other aspects that we can’t ignore.

Pods may pose another threat to the progress made in the Black Lives Matter movement — we are all fighting the same fight for equality. If the popularity of pandemic pods grow, will kids of color be left out? This is a definite possibility. After all, people are going to want to keep their pods comprised of others with a similar COVID-19 risk level. But since people of color are statistically more likely to be in riskier jobs as essential workers, this factor means that their children may be excluded.

Will the 2020-21 school year look like a high school cafeteria — where birds of a feather flock together?

We also can’t ignore the fact that when kids are disenrolled from public schools in favor of homeschool, as they would be in the case of pandemic pods, those schools lose funding. And in many cases, the students most impacted by the lack of funding are the kids who are already marginalized to begin with. Virtual and e-learning allows kids to stay enrolled in public schools, and keeps money in the district; pods don’t.

When schools reopen, teachers will have both academic and social catch-up work to do with our kids. Will we reflect on these times and remember that racial segregation was a thing, or will the opportunity gap be greater, ultimately making it more challenging for certain students to catch up? We just don’t know. It is too early to tell, and we know nothing for sure as it pertains to what these pods will (or will not) do to our already-fragile communities.

I don’t think the existence of pandemic pods is a divide between the haves and the have nots, but an opportunity for us all to reimagine the education system. What if this is our new normal? Teachers may not feel comfortable returning to their beloved classrooms, opting instead to stay home, with their children, and lead small pods of learning within their communities — and I can’t blame them. This may be an opportunity for organizations like Teach for America to look at alternative ways to educate children who live in low-income communities and maybe they’d be the connector between communities.

We are not exempt, no matter our race or socioeconomic status, from what the aftermath of COVID-19 will have in store for us. We already know how much we’ve lost. No matter the color of our skin or where we call home, if we are parents with children, we all have something to decide, figure out, commit to every single day. Whether you will educate your children within a “pandemic pod,” choose to send your kids back to school, or teach them at home, learning needs to be done. It will be new, it will be scary and it will push us even harder as parents. 

Let’s be honest, we hope this will be temporary. We hope that in a year, or six months even, our kids can go back to school, back into their classrooms, and we can continue to advocate for them in the same ways we have been: as parents who want to continue to teach their kids and support their education in any way we can. If school districts could reallocate funds and provide sustainable options for families that include extra-curricular activities, restaurants in the community could provide a free lunch, and nonprofit organizations can bring kids together from different towns or school districts, we may be able to start the school year with hope that these pods just might work.

I don’t know what September will look or feel like for my kids and me, but I do know that we will figure it out here in our community while continuing to instill into our kids what we want them to know — pod or no pod.